Originally from Taiwan, bubble tea – commonly known as boba or pearl tea – reigns supreme as the undisputed champion of all year round beverages.
Icy cold and refreshing, it offers a perfect balance of ambrosial flavors and satisfying textures. For the uninitiated, bubble tea at its simplest is a combination of black tea, milk, sugar, and “bubbles” – springy tapioca pearls that give the drink its signature chew.
But as boba culture takes the world by storm, the variations have multiplied exponentially. Modern twists on the drink swap green or oolong tea for black or even decaffeinated fruit-infused tisanes. And in many cases, boba lovers can experiment with their toppings, adding everything from jelly, pudding and red beans to a frothy layer of salty cheese foam.
The drink is so popular that it’s even made its way into foods – think boba pearl toasties, pancakes, and even pizza. So how did it make its way from Taiwanese delicacy to global sensation?
Well, it’s a little contentious. Two Taiwanese tea vendors claim to have created the drink in different cities in the mid-1980s. Tu Tsong He says that he mixed green tea and white tapioca pearls called fenyuan in his Tainan tea shop, Hanlin, while an employee of the tea chain Chun Shui Tang says she was the first to think of it.
The debate over provenance came to a head in a Taiwanese courtroom when a protracted legal case ruled that the beverage was simply too ubiquitous and universally loved to belong to any shop or person. Bubble tea – it was decided – was the people’s drink.
Since then, boba has exploded in popularity. It spread quickly to neighboring regions like Hong Kong (where sweet milk tea was already a staple), mainland China, Japan, Malaysia and Singapore, where bubble tea shops became popular hangouts spots for young customers, who would line up in droves to sip the hybrid concoction and socialize with pals.
In the 1990s, the craze migrated globally as Taiwanese and other Asian immigrants introduced it to communities abroad. The playful nature of boba captured people’s curiosity, and the advent of social media further fueled the bubble tea craze, turning it into an Instagram-worthy snack with lasting appeal.
Today, boba culture is stronger than ever. Globally, the bubble tea market is expected to grow to $4.3 billion by 2027, while a whopping 94% of people between the ages of 20-29 reported buying boba tea in the last three months, so we don’t see the bubble bursting anytime soon.
It’s also safe to say that bubble tea has become more than just Taiwan’s most iconic export. It has evolved into a symbol of youth subculture, and a delicious representation of Asian identity and diaspora.
And while it’s often enjoyed out in the buzzing bubble tea shops in cities around the world, you can whip up a cup of boba to enjoy at home this summer with one of our favorite recipes:
The Recipe: Pearl Green Milk Tea
Yields: 1 serving
The Glassware: BOMSHBEE’s Angle Taper DOF
- 3 oz. of vanilla ice cream, cubed if possible
- 2 oz of brown sugar boba
- Matcha powder
- Milk or milk alternative of your choice
- Whisk matcha powder with warm milk until it’s smooth and blended well. Set aside.
- Add vanilla ice cream cubes to your glass.
- Slowly add boba, gently shaking the glass so the tapioca balls rest in the bottom.
- Pour the matcha mix over the top and gently stir so the ice cream melts.